Does the word that just popped into your head show up here? Find out:

01 May, 2008

Sturgeon Story

Once, long ago, a fish entered the Chesapeake. A sturgeon, sticking to the bottom most of the time as was the way of his people. Nose swiveled to the mud, he swam from cape to cape and up every bight and river, past eelgrass and
oyster-bed, into every creek and gut. For sturgeons are long-lived, curious, and methodical. And they know the best grounds underwater like a hog knows truffles on land, sniffing and snorfing to beat an uptown wine tasting, snout-plowing into the aqueous soil in the better spots to see what comes up.

Over successions of forests, generations of turtles and man, and epochs of insects, the fish swam and swam, learning the bay. Out of sight from all but a few creatures, and for most of whom the suddenly gaping mouth of a sturgeon was the last thing they saw.

His survey done, and so too his inclination to head into the ocean again in search of another Chesapeake, the fish made the rounds of his favorite bay-beds, feasting the whole year through. Shooting up or down the deep Susquehannok channel, he would dart up the rivers, passing the falls sometimes. As he grew, only big rains made deep enough water to pull that off, but he was now a big bull fish, and would push his torpedo nose damn well through anything these rivers could send down.

Older and larger, progenious of the Chesapeake sturgeon, so strong now he only flicked his mighty tail once to get from Potomac to Nansemond, the mighty beast began to feel like a dinosaur. He had feasted every feast and nosed every mudflat, every pebbled channel, every sandy bed through the bay and its rivers from mouth to headwater. Nobody else remembered the real good times any more, the pristine waters before the fire-makers had come. A few times he came close enough to watch these beasts, and on two occasions he had been spotted; the first had left a stone chip embedded just below his back fin. He had watched a few generations of these two-leggeds along the banks of the river that they would eventually call Powhatan's.

At one of these villages, the people caused a grove of walnut trees. The rains of late Autumn would wash down the decomposed but still bitter hulls, and though he hated it at first, somehow his taste grew to need it. And more often he found himself leaving the anonymity and safety of the deep to get the walnut scent. The first few times he was seen was by children who screamed and ran. Seeing nothing by the time they arrived, the parents figured the monster was another children's game.

Perhaps because he had grown so old and alone that he had grown bitter, the walnut grove and its astringent black brew drew the fish back again and again. Nothing else in the bay interested him anymore. On starlit nights he would gaze at the grove for hours. And one night he was watching trees heavy with nuts certain to be falling in droves within a half-moon. Suddenly, his tail twitched mightily, vaulting his body ashore. As if crawling through the eelgrass, his fins instinctively rotated, heaving his bulk to the closest tree. Gills burning already, his mouth gaped over the tree and inhaled the nuts, leaves, twigs and all in one gulp. Twisting on the rebound, flopping back, he was more awkward than he had been since the Pleistocene.

But he was also safely back in the river, so that the creatures who poured out of the lodges did not see the fish. They only saw the jagged bole of one of their trees, and quickly decided that the children had been telling truth, not tales. Few slept the rest of the night, but none had a plan to deal with a tree-eater who had created a goodly gully escaping to the water.

The next day the men canoed up and down the river, more of them running along the banks, all armed with bows, clubs, and spears. Kids followed and threw walnuts at every little turtle nose on the water. Nobody of any age bothered to attack the sly ancient boulder down in the mud a half-mile upstream.

That night, there were big fires, and the big fish felt like the darkness was not cover enough to guarantee safety. He laid deep and low, watching their glow and biding his time. For the old sturgeon had watched fire-makers, and knew about them as he did about most any other creature in the watershed a defining paradox. And for these smart monkeys, it was this: They only stick with something for any time if they have already been doing it forever.

Seeing as they had not guarded against giant riverine tree-eating monsters before, it came as no surprise to the sturgeon that the lights flickered out one by one until one night there were none. And on the second night of dark, well before the moon arose, he slipped in close to watch and listen. The fire-makers slept, but he was wary. Then weary, afraid to venture landward, but overcome with the dullness of watching nothing happen.

Again a spasm wrung through his spine so suddenly and strongly that his tail launched him over the bank. And again panic and burning gills could not convince his fins they were not feet, and the piscoid landing craft advanced from the beachhead up to the tree-line. Gills, eyes, and mouth all searing now, he lunged and bit the largest of the walnut trees.

Such a large tree that he bit and bit again to get through the dense, burled grain. Twisting his bulk, the branches finally snapped, but by now the burning was so intense he could not see, could not breathe, could not even tell where the shore was. Voices and bipeds exploded out of the bark lodges, and fires bloomed. A hail of arrows and shower of spears barely pricked his old fish hide, but a few hit gill and eye and the old fish turned out to be neither impervious nor immortal.

The village and its neighbors and relatives and all their dogs feasted on the monster, who the shaman had re-defined as a gift, for days. They brought hickory and smoked strip after strip of sturgeon, but still could not salvage it all. Smoke and noise and hordes of children kept buzzards at bay at first, but they began to circle in such numbers that the sky darkened and the ground became covered with their splat. Besides, the bears had arrived and seemed impatient, and there was no stopping the flies. All the fire-makers left except the shaman and his apprentice, whose noses were plugged against stench and flies with rolled tobacco leaves.

Nobody returned that Winter or through any of the following warm moons because of the smell. But as the winds blew colder and leaves shed their green and then their grip, the lure of walnut grove was too strong. Nobody wanted to face late Winter without a store of nuts. So they returned, and found the grove in need of a good harvest and some fire. The shaman drew a circle around the great skeleton and commanded fire not to enter. He pointed to the bones and the colossal mouthful of walnuts among them, which had already sprouted. Squirrels and every other animal had not eaten any, he said, and explained that his guardians had told him that the fish was not a gift of flesh, or one year's feast. The gift was groves. The leviathan belly-full of nuts, fertilized by his carcass, had spit out thousands of baby trees, and now all of the people were to take these seedlings and plant more groves. The ones that remained growing from this great fish, their roots making wood from his bones, could never be harvested for eating, though anyone would be welcome to take nuts for the planting.

Fire-makers brought walnuts from this tree far and wide. In time, nuts from the sturgeon grove became trees throughout the Chesapeake region. People don't depend on them the way they used to, but the civilized ones know that a winter without walnuts gathered and cracked within the family is a bleak one indeed.


Like the old sturgeon, no tree lasts forever. Before steel, walnut trees in particular had what it took to persist: offerings of food and wood considerably harder to cut and hew than the human attention span will abide in construction material. Not too long after Powhatan's river was re-named the James, fire-belching creatures dealt with walnut trees by girdling and burning them, knowing that walnuts liked the same rich loamy soils that they wished to transform into tobacco and corn. Eventually, though, the descendants of these folks took to turning the wood of the walnut tree into furniture. Cutting and polishing, the woodwrights would often find themselves looking at a grain that echoed the burly old sturgeon.

One tree, cut in the 1960s or 1970s, and maybe growing back when Virginians felt compelled to throw off British rule, became a plank and sat in a barn until my dad and his double-first cousin bought the wood to use. Other planks became furniture and frames and shelves. But the projects failed to consume the wood before he died, and I inherited some pieces. (By inherit, I mean that I refused to thrown them away.)

A year or so ago, I spotted a sturgeon lurking in one plank. I cut out the shape, but being human, was distracted and did not complete it. This past Autumn, when I should have been cracking walnuts, I got a job at the other end of the country. You may have been subjected to the saga in the critically acclaimed series of emails. In any case, the move forced me to jettison some things. Like most of the walnut boards.

But not the sturgeon. I snuck that into the little U-haul trailer along with some Hawaiian kamani and koa wood and some rocks that mean a lot to me, and high-tailed it down the road before my wife could object. Despite my human attention span, I could not give up on completing the sturgeon. The impracticality of moving a 30--pound hunk of wood, abetting an overland migration of a replica fish, well I have to admit that that aspect also appealed to me. Besides, sturgeons live in the northwest as well as the Chesapeake, so it made sense.

I worked on it some, and then one day it came to me that the migration was not quite done. I had always figured that it would eventually find its way to someone else, because most things I carve end up being gifts of one type or another, and I almost never know to whom when I start cutting. The occasion arose, I spotted it, and offered it as a gift from my employer to a tribe that was helping us out. Just common courtesy, and something for the high mukamukas to exchange.

Only it ended up being me, and not the boss many levels above me, who handed this fish to the leader of a tribe. Too nervous to speak, but pretty happy to see a journey started so long ago
and so far away end up with a recipient whose smile said the fish was home.

No comments:

Post a Comment